Listen: As homelessness overwhelms, Dorothy Day Center struggles, plans

MPR’s Tim Nelson reports on the struggles at Dorothy Day Center, where homeless overflow the building and area outside of homeless shelter.

The Dorothy Day rescue plan calls for a two-step upgrade to the campus with more than 580 beds, almost half for emergency and transitional shelters.


2014 Minnesota AP Award, first place in Feature - Radio Division, Class Three category


text | pdf |

SPEAKER 1: A plan to replace St. Paul's 30-year-old Dorothy Day Center is moving forward slowly, but not fast enough to keep pace with the growing population of homeless people. Many of them take shelter in tents and tarps nearby after they're unable to find space inside. Tim Nelson has our report.

SPEAKER 2: We've got to take it down.

TIM NELSON: Drive by the Dorothy Day center some morning at dawn and you might find Leticia Bell sleeping on the grass nearby. She's 52 and a mother of three.

LETICIA BELL: What do I have here? Oh, I don't know. My cardboard, obviously. You have to start with a piece of cardboard. Then you put a blanket down, then you put your sleeping bag over it. And all I have is my work uniform. You know, some socks and underwear, a couple of pairs of pants. My hygiene products. I've got a flashlight and an umbrella and some books. And that's about it.

TIM NELSON: Well, that and a chunk of steel rebar.

LETICIA BELL: I sleep with that at night when I'm out here just in case because you just never know what's going to happen. Somebody got robbed yesterday.

TIM NELSON: Her last job was as a cook at a Grand Avenue Restaurant. Before that, she worked at a hotel, but she had knee surgery earlier this summer and couldn't be on her feet. She says she and her mom can't get along and she had to move out a few months ago. She doesn't want to be a burden to her kids. So Belle has joined the crowd that's become a fixture outside the Dorothy Day Center in downtown St. Paul. Sometimes dozens sleep wrapped up in tarps or camped out in rows of tents along West Seventh Street.

TIM MARX: As you see here, this place is increasingly overwhelmed. And so we're going to have to continue to do our best not only as Catholic charities, but the entire community to make the best of a very bad situation.

TIM NELSON: That's Tim Marx, Catholic Charities' Executive Director. Dorothy Day was never supposed to be this way. It was built in 1981 with just two bathrooms, providing meals and services just during the day with no sleeping accommodations. Now every night, as many as 250 people sleep inside, most of them on mats on the floor.

Dorothy Day provides 80% of the shelter to homeless single adults in Ramsey County, and it started turning away people for lack of space three years ago. Marx spoke there one recent morning as people headed out of the shelter. He says even homeless people are avoiding the place now and he doesn't blame them.

TIM MARX: People will tell you, I don't want to go into Dorothy Day. It stinks too much now. It's overcrowded. People themselves-- and that's why you're seeing people camp outside and be outside. They want to be around the services and the protection and the things that we can provide to people, but they don't necessarily want to be in here because of the conditions in here.

TIM NELSON: Tish Bell says it's tough choosing between taking her chances on the street or sleeping in the center.

TISH BELL: Every time I go in there, I get sick. There's-- the ventilation system is not equipped for housing people up in there. So all night long, all you hear is people coughing. And by the morning, you wake up and you can't breathe, you can't talk.

TIM NELSON: Part of the problem is sheer numbers. The homeless population in Minnesota has been rising steadily since 2006. Wilder Foundation data show the numbers up by more than 30% since the Recession began. Bell thinks many of the people camping out are mentally ill and forced out of other shelter.

LETICIA BELL: The social service programs aren't working here because all day long people talk to themselves and they're here. It's not servicing them.

TIM NELSON: Anthony Torres says landlords have been steadily raising the bar as they screen tenants like him. He says his criminal past, including burglary, has left him homeless for the last six months.

ANTHONY TORRES: It's like everybody doesn't want to rent to somebody who's been in the prison before.

TIM NELSON: Others like Dion Pennywell say they think the poor are simply being left behind by the changing economy.

DION PENNYWELL: You know, there's a lot of social programs, but there's nothing really being done. You got all this money, but you steady got all these people sleeping outside.

TIM NELSON: Cathy ten Broeke is the state's Director to Prevent and End Homelessness. She says the tight housing market has lowered rental vacancies in the Twin Cities to just 2.6% and all but squeezed out affordable housing.

CATHY TEN BROEKE: Because of how tight that is, people who are housed are often spending a huge percent of their income on their housing. Because of that, they've been sort of forced into these opportunities that they can't afford. We're seeing a lot of people falling into homelessness because of that.

TIM NELSON: Back inside Dorothy Day, Catholic Charities' Tim Marx says his organization is acutely aware of the problems both at Dorothy Day and beyond.

TIM MARX: And one of the reasons Catholic Charities is so insistent about shining a light about what goes on in the community here at Dorothy Day and the cost of it to the community and the benefits of doing something different is that it can be a rallying point to the entire community to do something different.

TIM NELSON: Right now, that means the city, the state, and Catholic Charities are all betting on the same solution for St. Paul, a $63 million two-step upgrade to the Dorothy Day campus with more than 580 beds. Almost half will be in purpose-built emergency and transitional shelters.

The first step will copy the higher ground facility in Minneapolis that opened near the Target Center in 2012. That facility has 336 real beds, secure storage, and plenty of showers, but more importantly, it features upgrades an option that offers an incentive to work and save for better accommodations. There's also permanent housing and health care services in the same building.

Catholic Charities says it's helped more than 100 clients move into permanent housing and more than half are moving into market rate housing. The plan is to duplicate that shelter in St. Paul just up the street from the Xcel Energy Center, then tear down the Dorothy Day, replacing it with a social services center offering employment and health care.

But the project, known as Revision, got stalled out last year. It was initially proposed for the southern edge of Saint Paul's East Side. Then neighbors and East Side officials rejected the move and sent the plan back downtown. Now it's on track again. It's scheduled to break ground next year, but it's at least four years from being finished.

So far, Catholic Charities has just $6 million in state funds in hand and another $6 million from private donors. Housing bonds and the city are expected to help, but there are literally tens of millions of dollars left to raise. And in the meantime, Tim Marx from Catholic Charities says he expects the crowd outside may keep growing.

TIM MARX: After you see what goes on here today, we can't move fast enough.

TIM NELSON: Tim Nelson, Minnesota Public Radio News.


Materials created/edited/published by Archive team as an assigned project during remote work period and in office during fiscal 2021-2022 period.

This Story Appears in the Following Collections

Views and opinions expressed in the content do not represent the opinions of APMG. APMG is not responsible for objectionable content and language represented on the site. Please use the "Contact Us" button if you'd like to report a piece of content. Thank you.

Transcriptions provided are machine generated, and while APMG makes the best effort for accuracy, mistakes will happen. Please excuse these errors and use the "Contact Us" button if you'd like to report an error. Thank you.

< path d="M23.5-64c0 0.1 0 0.1 0 0.2 -0.1 0.1-0.1 0.1-0.2 0.1 -0.1 0.1-0.1 0.3-0.1 0.4 -0.2 0.1 0 0.2 0 0.3 0 0 0 0.1 0 0.2 0 0.1 0 0.3 0.1 0.4 0.1 0.2 0.3 0.4 0.4 0.5 0.2 0.1 0.4 0.6 0.6 0.6 0.2 0 0.4-0.1 0.5-0.1 0.2 0 0.4 0 0.6-0.1 0.2-0.1 0.1-0.3 0.3-0.5 0.1-0.1 0.3 0 0.4-0.1 0.2-0.1 0.3-0.3 0.4-0.5 0-0.1 0-0.1 0-0.2 0-0.1 0.1-0.2 0.1-0.3 0-0.1-0.1-0.1-0.1-0.2 0-0.1 0-0.2 0-0.3 0-0.2 0-0.4-0.1-0.5 -0.4-0.7-1.2-0.9-2-0.8 -0.2 0-0.3 0.1-0.4 0.2 -0.2 0.1-0.1 0.2-0.3 0.2 -0.1 0-0.2 0.1-0.2 0.2C23.5-64 23.5-64.1 23.5-64 23.5-64 23.5-64 23.5-64"/>